Monday, March 22, 2010

Rolling Thunder

How to convey hollowness? A frozen core? Must be a very tough exercise for an actor. Merely sitting still with a blank expression is relatively easy. Believably displaying an dispassionate exterior and simultaneously conveying a crushing sense of loss: loss of loved ones and things, but also of purpose and even self, is much more difficult. I have seen several actors try to pull this off. Usually, it is after their characters are victims of some unspeakable crime, something that perhaps robbed them of all their worth.

William Devane nails it. As Major Charles Rane in the 1977 drama ROLLING THUNDER, he expresses a powerfully emotional emotionlessness. It suits this character, as he spent years as a POW during the Vietnam conflict. Years of unspeakable tortures, physical and otherwise have cost him his soul, perhaps. If the military turned him into a empathy-free killing machine during basic training, his field experience at the Hanoi hotel expanded and completed the task. Rane returns home to Texas to find his wife engaged to a local policeman, and a young son who doesn't remember him. The steely exterior doesn't flinch. After his wife delivers the sad news, Rane merely deadpans, "I'm just gonna sit here..". Ice cold. But we also glimpse the Major retreating to his garage nightly for a ritual of self-inflicted torture, brutal lashings that mirror the thousands of days of abuse he received back East at the hands of the Vietnamese. Therapy? Penance? Devane's visage reveals everything and nothing.

To be exact, the Major spent 2,554 days as a prisoner. His hometown welcomes him back as a hero, giving him almost as many silver dollars for each day (plus one for good luck) and a red Cadillac as a thank-you. This does not go unnoticed by a couple of local scumbags, who with a pair of Mexican toughs attack and kill Rane's family while they attempt to retrieve the money from his homestead. Rane survives the attack, but only after his right hand is forced into the garbage disposal. Mangled beyond repair. A rather sharp prosthesis will soon take its place.

Another soldier returned from 'Nam with Rane back to Texas. His name is Sergeant First Class Johnny Vohden. Like Rane, he is shell shocked beyond any trace of the man he might have once been. Tommy Lee Jones likewise completely, believably conveys a transparency that is almost eerie. As director John Flynn frames the Vohden dinner table, surrounded by hapless relatives who attempt to praise the soldier, we only stare on this poor soul, lost in a wilderness beyond grief, beyond care. Vohden is all too aware, however, of how trivial civilian life seems to be as he listens to his family's rants and bellyaches. Scenes like this fill many movies detailing the travails of soldiers returning home, but Jones and Devane seemed to have tapped into a dimension of catatonia that makes their performances seem intuitive. Far more than other acting I've seen. All that seems to motivate them is justice. This will come served up to the deserving via good old fashioned vengeance.

The deserving, of course, are the vile quartet who wiped out the remnants of the Major's earlier life. What if this had not have happened? What if the Major had gone on to see his wife marry another man and his son just continue to be a stranger? Or would he even have cared? Such feelings are complex, but something motivates (call it pure get what you give) Rane to call up Vohden to assist him in meting out some ultra-violent payback. It gets really ugly, viewer. No cheeks are turned here. There's a reason why Rane's new right appendage is featured so prominently in the film's publicity stills and posters. This also being an exploitation picture from the 70s, you expect some bloodletting.

You might also expect some sex, but in an interesting turn, ROLLING THUNDER (co-written by Paul Schrader) subverts our expectations and stays true to its characters. The silver coins I mentioned had been handed out to Rane by a local waitress named Linda. She had had a crush on Rane for many years and even wore a bracelet in his honor while he was away. She attempts to comfort Rane after his tragedies, but the man is on a single track. He can't seem to feel anything otherwise, and dalliances would just be a waste of time. Linda is persistent, and eventually accompanies the man on a road trip to Mexico, unaware of its purpose. Along the way, Rane softens a bit, even opens up about his earlier life, but only for an instant. There's business at hand. A local cathouse will be the stage for a gory wrap-up.

ROLLING THUNDER first came to my attention as a trailer before one of my many viewings of STAR WARS when I was a kid. The trailer was so vivid. It filled our young, naive hearts hearts with some sort of unhealthy rush. I recall lots of kids in the theater collectively "ooo"ing. We were excited, but my excitement was short-lived, knowing even then that there wasn't a snowball's chance of my seeing it anytime soon. It would take over 30 years, in fact. On a laptop. This movie has yet to receive an official DVD release. Bring out the petitions!

An interesting bit of trivia: Quentin Tarantino so loved this movie that he named one of his distribution companies (the one resposnible for re-releasing old Bs like SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) after it: "Rolling Thunder Pictures". A hook is its logo.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

One of the most stunning recordings I think I have ever heard is a live version of The Who's "Magic Bus", from the Live at Leeds album. The 1970 show captured for that album is a piece of history you're happy to hear preserved. It is one of the few live recordings where the energy, the aura shines through. Most live pieces are substandard aural sludge, well mixed or otherwise. There is simply nothing like being there. I wasn't at Leeds, but hearing it today makes me feel (and wish) that I was. A band as engergetic and seminal as The Who deserve not one iota less, ya rotter.

The 1979 documentary THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is likewise a highly worthy keepsake of some great Who moments. We see the salad days performances of early gems such as "Happy Jack" and full force latter day rips through "Won't Get Fooled Again". If you know your Who trivia/cliches, you'll expect to see certain things:

1. Pete Townshend energetically hitting the strings with a windmill arm. Check.
2. Roger Daltrey swinging the microphone cord. Check.
3. Townshend trashing his guitar with thunderous violence. Check.
4. Drummer Keith Moon mugging quite entertainingly through interviews. Check.

These moments are culled from a wide variety of sources, including some riotous clips from The Smothers Brothers Hour. That performance remains infamous for an incident that should send shivers up and down the spine of any concerned audiologist-Moon instructed the crew to load his kick drum with flash powder for a dramatic explosion at the climax of "My Generation." It worked all too well. The ignition was so intense that each band member sustained injury, and it was also rumored that backstage, Bette Davis fainted into Mickey Rooney's arms. Townshend would cite this incident as the genesis of his hearing loss and wicked case of tinnitus. The following years of extremely loud gigs (sans hearing protection) only exacerbated things. Townshend is now a spokesperson for hearing loss. "Hope I die before I get old"? Hmmmm...

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT provides ample document to this idea that the Who embodies the rebellion and restlessness of rock music. In other words, the movie's an off the chart success. It manages to give us snapshots in time of the various facets of this band. They were, by turns, Mods, rock operasmiths, R & B mavens. They composed epic anthems and elaborate operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. For the former, they allowed eccentric British director Ken Russell to create an outrageous film adaptation that still stuns me to this day (can't stop thinking about Ann Magaret swimming in those beans or Jack Nicholson, gasp, singing). You couldn't pidgeonhole this quartet.

A Who concert was (apparently) a raucous, possibly transcendent event. Sometimes, things turned tragic, as a year after this doc, concertgoers perished during a chaotic stampede. This film doesn't exactly ignore the darker side of rock 'n' roll, but still favors the more positive spirit. Interviews with each band member (and collectively) reveal cheerful dispositions and even merriment. These guys loved the job. Director Jeff Stein expertly assembles moments of inspired improvisation, on and offstage. Mostly through television clips and some staged stuff. They seem genuine. Even the stoic bassist, John Entwistle, is smiling.

Was there infighting? Of course. When you combine wildly different personalities like these, drum kits aren't they only explosive elements. Townshend was the band brainchild who composed the chords and the lyrics over which lead singer/Adonis Roger Daltrey screamed. There was also screaming backstage, but Stein doesn't distract us with such dirt. And what about Keith Moon? A wild child, lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to the hilt. You know, the trashed hotel rooms, intoxicants, the bragging to the press that he was a millionaire, that sort of thing. But as they say, "the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long". In 1978, Moon died a few months after this film's climactic concert sequence was shot.

This movie does not play like a sleazy tabloid article from the Sun, but rather a breathless cabaret, like an endorphin rush you get when you play your favorite song at top volume. I was unable to keep still while watching this movie. THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is not a straight concert doc, or a tiresome avant garde oddity (see: Zappa's 200 MOTELS or BABY SNAKES, or Zeppelin's THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME). We learn all we need to through the assualtive collage we're presented. It's like all the "good parts" edited together in one long fast moving train. This is undiluted cinematic exhiliration, a chance to crank your system and see if you truly can piss off your neighbors. I'm waiting for a local revival. I'll bring professional grade earplugs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another Vacancy, Book II

No, no one passed away this time (for those who remember the original entry). Just another case of South Florida transiency. I mentioned that our previous upstairs neighbors had moved out last August. They had recently had a baby and bought a house. About a month later, we had new neighbors. A young couple: him, of Russian descent (but darned if he didn't look Scandanavian to me), her, a full Italian. Her father, in fact, owns a swanky Italian restaurant on the pensinsula of Palm Beach. He's quite personable; I chanced to meet him on Christmas Day. The young lady left us a nice note shortly after her arrival, stating that she was happy to be there.

Our couple, however, was rather combustible. From almost the first week, anxious voices (mostly hers) were audible through our ceiling. The words were not always intelligible, but it was apparent all was not well. Like many troubled couples, they were able to put on a happy face when we saw them in the courtyard, or in the driveway.

There was also this business of their schedules. She was on wait staff at her dad's place at night. This usually meant that she would return home at about 2 A.M., often with friends in tow. Lots of laughter, a few "Oh my God"s, raggae music. The music was so loud a few weeks back that I had to knock on their door after sitting in disbelief for a few minutes. The young lady was ultra-apologetic and the music wasn't just lowered, but turned off.

But, oh, those fights. Over the months they got worse. The words were becoming clearer. I had also heard their intimacy (one of the debits of apartment living, lemme tell ya) a few times, but the arguments were more frequent. The fiery Italian side was in full force (I'm part Italian) on her part and we knew it was only a matter of time before something would break.

My wife and I voiced our concern to each other, but intervention is often unwise. We were concerned but knew not to interfere. I saw a lot of myself in this couple. At least, my early twenty-something self: the rootlessness, the casual morality, the attitude, the lack of funds. A part of me wanted to sit them down, but who am I to impart wisdom? I've matured quite a bit in 20 years but it's still in progress (ask my wife).

Additionally, we hardly saw these people. We never got a chance to hang out with them, never even going inside their apartment. That's regrettable. We were very friendly with them, save the night I came home and found that I had nowhere to park as there were several vehicles parked everywhere in the driveway and about. Seems there was a little soiree happenin'. I had several bags of groceries and I wasn't happy to see this. The young man came out and even offered to help but I was scowling by this point, and continued to do so when I saw a group of their friends partying in our front courtyard. I felt badly about my (uncharacteristic) sour disposition afterward, as they all looked embrarrassed and apologetic, and I was the archetype of the grouchy old coot who warns the kids to stay offa his lawn. Thankfully, it was a one-time incident on all sides.

We also gave the young lady a Christmas gift, which she adored (a ceramic dolphin, a re-gift). It turns out she loves dolphins and even had some sort of dolphin motif in her apartment.

But mainly it was just a series of comings and goings, smiles, "hey how ya doing" and little more. Not much different than with our previous neighbors, honestly. I blame myself, as I tend to be a very private person. I'm not always enthusiastic about socializing, even with those who share our street. When I think of all the lost opportunities, it's humbling. It's not uncommon, though. When visiting a friend in Burbank some years ago I asked about why I didn't see a soul milling about the hood. "People don't do that here. If a neighbor said hi to me I would probably call the police." Ergh.

A few weeks ago, the young man moved out. The couple had split. There was a loud party that evening. May have been coincidental, maybe not. On Monday this week, there was a FOR RENT sign on our lawn. I came home also to see the lady and her friends hauling furniture. She explained that she is going to live with her cousin, then up to North Carolina when "the season" ends here in FL. Her father also has a restuarant up there. She thanked my wife and me for our friendliness, but I felt we had failed her just the same. As we had all along, we prayed for her (and her newly ex). We hoped that we had some positive impact. We also hope to get to know whoever the new tenants are a bit better.

I mainly wrote this to document a period, something to look back on years from now. To recall, to hopefully see how I've grown. That's what journals should do best, I believe.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Shutter Island

Alfred Hitchcock is often quoted as saying that he delighted in playing his audience like a piano. He did, and few other directors did it with such delicious sadism. Many who followed (none the least of which, in several overt homages, was Brian DePalma) tried to imitate/emulate that style. One foolish attempt was an actual scene-for-scene remake of PSYCHO (shame on you, Msr. Van Sant!), one of the most numbing non-experiences I've ever had watching a film. But now another master, auteur, undebatably great genius has seemed to follow suit. Martin Scorsese, simply one of the best directors of the last 40 plus years, presents SHUTTER ISLAND, a maddening labyrinth of a movie that will alienate some and cause others to trip over complementary adjectives.

Why has Marty fashioned such an obviously Hitchcockian film? Honestly, I really believe that this film is exactly that, an opportunity to pay tribute in a grand, sometimes excessive big budget 21st century entertainment. I can mention the POV shot of the shower head that looks exactly like the one Janet Leigh stood under 50 years before. Look at that winding staircase in the lighthouse! The jagged cliffs, the dizzy heights. A protagonist who suffers from vertigo! Amnesia! Psychosis!

Psychosis is front and center in this film, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's bestseller. The twisty tale focuses on a Federal marshal named Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DeCaprio) who, with a newly appointed partner (Mark Ruffalo), in the early 1950s investigates the disappearance of a prison/insane asylum escapee from a rather mysterious island off the Boston coast. This island is an elaborate complex of three separate holding areas for a variety of dangerous criminals. "Ward C" is where the truly dangerous ones are housed. We will spend a fair amount of time in this dank, wonderfully designed hellhole of shadow and filth, visiting inmates who may not be who they seem. We will also traverse an opulent mansion that serves as residence and office for chief island shrink Dr. Cawley (Ben KInsley, in a precise performance).

As I watched SHUTTER ISLAND, I thought of Hitchock's curious 1964 film, MARNIE. For some reason, that one has always stuck with me. It was a frustrating melodrama about a larcenous, very mixed up woman who tries to unravel her past. Daniels constantly speaks of his own tragic past, but we have no idea how tragic it really is until SHUTTER ISLAND's corker of a denouement.

That late hour twist has had folks buzzing since this film's first showing at the "Butt Numb-athon" in Austin last December. Resist the notion of looking up spoilers (and I will reveal nothing here) if you plan on taking this trip. The twists don't end with the big revelation at the climax. Right up to the final seconds, we are teased with interpretations of minute details like body tics, the name someone is called. This is a Chinese box of a movie. I am purposely not disclosing too much of the plot.

Another film of which I was reminded was Scorsese's own CAPE FEAR, his 1991 remake of the tart little noir. I was disheartened by the remake, feeling that Scorsese was slumming, squandering his considerable skill on a modern day potboiler. SHUTTER ISLAND is another such potboiler. It is a gimmick filled thriller designed to lead the audience down the dark garden path, without a map as to how to return. Once we're deep in this stew, we cannot be certain what reality is. Good popcorn, in other words. But is the director again wasting his (and possibly our) time?

Yes and no. Watching a maestro conduct is pure cinematic pleasure, no matter what the piece. I've said many times that if Marty directed a doc on the mating habits of mollusks, I'd be there. His gift for this medium is apparent from the first image of any of his films. Of course, his team of DPs, editors, costume designers are to be given much credit, and many of his past co-conspirators (including editor Thelma Schoonmaker) lend their talents yet again. SHUTTER ISLAND is filled with fine direction of choice actors (among them Jackie Earle Haley, Max Von Sydow, and Patricia Clarkson). DiCaprio, in his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, just gets better and better, IMO. A late scene in this movie, where a terrible discovery is made, showcases some of his best work. Von Sydow's presence as a suspicious German (and who Ebert described as looking as if he is about the play chess with Death) made me laugh out loud, but he's quite fine, too.

So is this movie best described as an excuse to show off directorial flash? Partially true, and in the flashback scenes, Marty orchestrates some unforgettable imagery, particularly during WW II sequences. Very haunting stuff. In fact, those scenes are so strong you almost forget how hokey the latter day storyline is. Also, the many dollies through the dark corridors of the prison wards, the horrific storms outside, the nightmares that Teddy has, all virtuoso. Often, it seems Scorsese is also paying tribute to another master, Stanley Kubrick. Ward C is like a stand-in for the Overlook hotel. Some of the dream sequences also seemed directly inspired by THE SHINING. Kubrick woud've likely approved. Hitchcock, too.

In its opening weekends, SHUTTER ISLAND almost instantly became the largest box-office hit of any of Marty's prior films. Like CAPE FEAR, it is a big budget juggernaut, often sacrificing nuance for patent dread and even easy jump-out-of-the-dark scares. But it is still worth the ride, as it is wildly entertaining and again, a chance to watch one of our greatest living directors in action. Just forget about how good TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, MEAN STREETS, and GOODFELLAS are. Ah, they're different animals. But with all of the interesting but misfired forays into various territories on the Scorsese resume, I wonder if Marty shouldn't just go back to the goombahs and make another true masterwork.